Jan 3, 2012 at 4:32pm ET by Danny Sullivan
Searches for “browser” no longer bring up the Google Chrome home page after Google applied a penalty against the page because of Google’s own sponsored post campaign.
Google said even though it felt there were no “remaining violations” of its guidelines, the search engine’s spam fighting team was going to reduce the PageRank value of the Google Chrome home page, which in turn lead to today’s ranking decrease.
From the statement Google sent us:
We’ve investigated and are taking manual action to demote www.google.com/chrome and lower the site’s PageRank for a period of at least 60 days.
We strive to enforce Google’s webmaster guidelines consistently in order to provide better search results for users.
While Google did not authorize this campaign, and we can find no remaining violations of our webmaster guidelines, we believe Google should be held to a higher standard, so we have taken stricter action than we would against a typical site.
Lower PageRank Value Doesn’t Equal Banning
At the time the statement was originally sent, around 1:30 PT today, the page had a publicly-reported PageRank value of 9. The highest you can have is 10.
One tool I used reported the non-https version of the page as having a PageRank of zero. Another check with the Google Toolbar shows it still at 9. However, it’s common that PageRank values shown to the public may be behind, sometimes months behind, the scores that Google is actually using.
Lowering the PageRank value is not the same as removing or banning the page from Google. Potentially, however, a lower PageRank value will reduce its ability to rank well for certain terms. That’s what’s happened as a result of this.
Will It Still Rank?
I wrote in the earlier version of this story:
Chances are, even with the PageRank reduction, the page will continue to rank for these terms. However, if it were to fall out of the first page of results for “browser,” or to something lower than its current number two position that I see, then the penalty will have had some real teeth….
If that penalty doesn’t cause some type of ranking reduction, then it’s not really much of a penalty at all. The separate issue of Google’s campaign creating garbage posts remains, but that’s a penalty that’s typically applied to the garbage post themselves.
No, It Will Not
Now that has happened for a search on “browser,” as you can see below:
That’s the first page of results for “browser” on Google now. Previously, Chrome has been ranked number two. Now you have to go to the fifth page of results to find it, ranked in position 50:
NOTE: Only about a half-hour after writing this, we’ve also seen the page sink to as low at 73.
In fact, the page no longer ranks for “chrome” or for “chrome browser,” either. Instead, of the Chrome home page that looked like this showing up first:
It’s the Chrome installation help page that gets top billing:
The main download page does still make it in the top results, but it has been demoted in both cases to “sitelink” status as you can see here:
John Doherty emailed me that he’d run some ranking checks on other terms before the change happened. Here’s the shift from what he recorded to what I see now:
- internet browser, dropped from 5th to 58th
- web browser, dropped from 4th to 54th
A Solid Slap
Overall, only one page in the sponsored post campaign was ever spotted with a “straight” link that passed credit to the Chrome page. It also didn’t seem as if the campaign overall was designed to help Chrome rank for any particular terms. It was doing fine on its own before this happened.
But technically, even that single link was enough to make Google guilty of buying paid links, even if it happened because of two different agencies being involved. Minor technical violation or not, I’d say Google applied a solid penalty against itself, one that should last for at least 60 days.
But If Google Can’t Figure Things Out…
To me, the bigger issue in this has always been the garbage content that was produced by the campaign, “thin” material that Google has fought to keep out of its own search results. I’m still trying to understand how Google failed to understand that the marketing companies it engaged with would produce this.
Given how much detail Google professes to put into its marketing, as I covered yesterday, it still remains amazing that the company found itself involved with this type of campaign.
It also raises the serious question that if Google can’t keep track of its own rules, what hope is there that third parties are supposed to figure it all out?
I hate to write that, because the last thing I want is for a Google screw-up to be an excuse for anyone to do the type of “marketing” that Google did. But it’s also true.
Postscript: The head of Google’s web spam team, Matt Cutts, has shared some comments on Google+ though he’s on vacation. He confirms that the video player links didn’t pass any link credit, but because they found at least one non-video player link that did, that was deemed sufficient to take action against Google. From his post:
If you investigated the two dozen or so sponsored posts (as the webspam team immediately did), the posts typically showed a Google Chrome video but didn’t actually link to Google Chrome. We double-checked, and the video players weren’t flowing PageRank to Google either.
However, we did find one sponsored post that linked to www.google.com/chrome in a way that flowed PageRank. Even though the intent of the campaign was to get people to watch videos–not link to Google–and even though we only found a single sponsored post that actually linked to Google’s Chrome page and passed PageRank, that’s still a violation of our quality guidelines, which you can find at http://support.google.com/webmasters/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=35769#3 .
In response, the webspam team has taken manual action to demote www.google.com/chrome for at least 60 days. After that, someone on the Chrome side can submit a reconsideration request documenting their clean-up just like any other company would. During the 60 days, the PageRank of www.google.com/chrome will also be lowered to reflect the fact that we also won’t trust outgoing links from that page.